Yellowstone County Auditor, Scott Turner is proposing a change in Montana law that governs his office. It’s a simple change, the primary focus of which is to give counties more options in how they fill the constitutionally mandated position.
Montana law allows that any county with a population of less than 15,000 may consolidate the position or make it a part time position. Turner is simply proposing that the population restriction be removed to let each county determine for itself how best to the fill the position. It is a costly position to fill, full time, if a county isn’t large enough to justify it.
Montana Republican Senator Roger Webb will carry the bill during the State Legislature.
The primary function of a county auditor is to review all claims against the county, both payroll and accounts payable, before checks are issued. The Auditor makes sure all the documentation is available, the proper accounts are being charged and expenditures are being made within guidelines, law and budgets. One important duty is to make sure that all documentation is transparent and available to public view.
The Auditor serves an important purpose, said Turner, “to make sure there aren’t double payments to officials and that department heads are doing what they should do;” the issue becomes a cost / benefit analysis. Is the cost of the office exceeding any potential loses or savings. “Authority rule- makers have to decide if it is worth the cost,” said Turner, “…how much do you want to spend for that independent oversight?”
Turner was just recently elected to continue to serve as Yellowstone County Auditor, after having been named to fill the position a year ago with the retirement of Debbie Hernandez. Prior to that Turner served 28 years as Yellowstone County’s Finance Director.
Some counties have consolidated the position with other elected public offices, such as Clerk and Recorder, but Turner doesn’t see that as a good solution. “There is no good place to consolidate the office because you end up with conflicts of interest, where you come to be auditing yourself,” said Turner. An independent auditor removes conflicts.
A county could choose to have the elected position be part time and if the elected individual lacks the credentials to do the job a certified accountant could be hired ,to whatever degree needed, to assist the elected Auditor.
The change “doesn’t force them to do anything,” said Turner, “it just allows them to gain some savings and put someone in with credentials.” The Constitution does not specify any qualifications for an elected auditor, or require that they meet any requirements in order to hold the office, but over time the duties have become complicated enough that the skills of a certified accountant might be beneficial.
In analyzing how counties function, Turner asks, “If it made such great sense why wouldn’t cities and school districts do likewise. They all function in another manner and there is no big rift of fraud from those governments. They function fine. Occasionally an issue will crop up – but how much do you want to spend to prevent that?”
In addition, counties are audited annually by an outside, independent auditing firm that monitors and oversees their processes and procedures and makes sure they are in compliance with all laws.
In Yellowstone County the Auditor’s office operates with a budget of $212,000, but not all of that is spent, said Turner. In addition to Turner, the office employs 1.6 other people for a total of 2.6 FTEs.
Only six counties, of Montana’s 56 counties, still elect full time County Auditors – Butte-Silverbow, Gallatin, Hill, Missoula, Park, and Yellowstone. Seven counties have consolidated the position with another elected position, usually the Clerk and Recorder.